Test Flight

Minority students are failing the AIMS test at a disturbing rate.

Pop Quiz: What happens when Native American students take the AIMS test?

The all-too-common, all-too-sad answer: They fail to meet minimum standards. Whether they're in third grade, eighth grade or high school, rarely do more than a third of Arizona's Native Americans meet minimum standards on the AIMS test, the high-stakes exam that high-school seniors will have to pass next year to earn a diploma. (The math requirement has been postponed until 2004.)

In most cases, the percentages for Native American students are just dismal. Among Native Americans taking the math portion of the exam, more than 85 percent of third-graders and more than 95 percent of high-school juniors flunked.

Higher percentages of Hispanic and black students pass the exam, but they still trail white students at an alarming rate. According to figures released by the state Department of Education, minority pass rates almost never come within 70 percent of the pass rates for white students.

Take the third-grade reading test administered last year. More than 77 percent of white third-graders succeeded in passing the reading test, as compared to roughly 51 percent of black and Hispanic children. Less than 34 percent of Native American third-graders met the standards. The Anglo students stay ahead of minority kids by more than 20 percentage points right through the 11th grade, where only 55 percent of white kids are passing, while minority rates drop to 33 percent or worse.

These unhappy statistics have led attorney Tom Berning to file a formal complaint with the U.S. Education Department. Berning, the former Tucson city attorney who now heads up the William E. Morris Institute for Justice, says that test scores of blacks, Native American and Hispanic students amount to a de facto case of discrimination.

"Although the pass rates for all groups are abysmal, the pass rates for Native Americans, Hispanics and African Americans when contrasted with the results for white students are truly astonishing," Berning notes. "Even more shocking, however, is the seeming lack of concern or urgency demonstrated by the state legislature, board of education or Department of Education in addressing this issue."

Berning says he can't say whether the AIMS test itself is racially biased, although researchers are looking at that question. He suggests that many schools with high concentrations of minority students--which often tend to be in low-income areas of the state--simply aren't doing the job.

"The test probably does accurately reflect that we are providing a very poor education to numerous students," says Berning.

Berning had planned to sue the state over the scores, but a recent Supreme Court decision, Alexander v. Sandoval, regarding Alabama's refusal to give driver's license exams in Spanish, reversed some three decades of precedent and left Berning without standing to file a suit. So he has instead filed an administrative complaint with the federal Department of Education. The state should substantially defer the date by which students will be required to pass the AIMS test in order to graduate, says Berning, "to allows students, whether they be minority or otherwise, an adequate opportunity to learn the material and pass." He also wants the state to provide students who are "at-risk, which turns out to be correlated with minority status, with the resources to come up to speed."

Berning's action comes as newly appointed State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jaime Molera is trying to avoid fumbling the AIMS political football hastily handed off by former state schools chief Lisa Graham Keegan, who resigned her position to take a job with an education think tank last month. The test, which has cost taxpayers some $9.2 million since development began in the late 1990s, has come under increasing criticism as the graduation requirement has neared.

Berning's complaint is winding its way through a labyrinthine federal process. Tom Collins, a spokesman for Molera, says the state education department has yet to be contacted by the feds and promises officials will cooperate fully with any inquiry.

Regarding the low test scores, Collins reports that his boss Molera "has said you don't throw out the thermometer if it says the patient has malaria. We should hold all students to one set of academic standards. And schools, districts and the department need to do what we need to do in terms of the gaps that are there in bringing all students up."

But it appears that Molera is opening the door to delaying the requirement that high school seniors pass the reading and writing portions of the AIMS test next year to receive their diploma. Collins says that Molera believes "we all need to take a step back, not in terms of policy but where we are as a state in terms of AIMS. What he's said is that he has been and is talking to education groups and business groups about the test. There are underlying questions about how and when you implement AIMS that haven't been answered yet."

A recent report by a consultant recommended the graduation requirements be pushed back until 2005. That decision will ultimately rest with the nine-member state board of education, which includes Molera as a voting member. The board of education has already postponed the math requirement until 2004.

Berning notes that Molera himself has refused to take the AIMS test, unlike his predecessor, Lisa Graham Keegan, who exceeded standards in writing and reading and met standards in the math portion.

"I don't blame the guy," Berning laughs. "I wouldn't want to be publicly labeled a fool."

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